Linebackers Front and Center

Is the hand-wringing over the Browns wide receiving corps distracting from concerns at linebacker?

At Nos. 22, 37 and with most every subsequent pick thereafter, the Cleveland Browns passed on selecting a wide receiver in the 2012 NFL Draft. There was one — Travis Benjamin — who was taken in the fourth round. He's not exactly penned into the Browns' starting lineup Sept. 9.

Since the second-round selections of Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie in 2009 did not turnout to be the second coming of Jerry Rice and John Taylor, improving the Browns' wide receiving corps has been a hotly debated topic. No doubt it will continue after the Browns failed to add any pass catchers in free agency and only one in the draft.

Yet as we inch toward the 2012 season, the Browns' wide receivers may not be the team's position group with the least overall talent and lacking the most depth.

That title could be reserved for the Browns' linebackers, led by 2011 starters D'Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong.

Jackson is the bright post. The 28-year-old was finally healthy for an entire season in 2011. Jackson finished with 158 tackles (116 solo) with 3.5 sacks one forced fumble and one interception. In February, he was rewarded with a new five-year deal.

From there the talent level begins to thin.

Fujita, while a crafty veteran, is a crafty veteran because he is 33 years old. He is clearly on the downside of his career. Moreover, the Browns will be without Fujita for the first three games of 2012, as he serves his suspension from the fallout of Bounty Gate.

Finally, Gocong delivered some memorable hits in 2011 at strong-side linebacker and he did sign a three-year contract extension last September. He is at his best going north and south, but sometimes gets lost in the shuffle going sideline-to-sideline.

Then, in alphabetical order, is the remainder of the Browns' linebacking corps, according to their roster on the team's web site: Emmanuel Acho, Benjamin Jacobs, James-Michael Johnson, Kaluka Maiava, Craig Robertson and Quinton Spears.

Suddenly, the Greg Little-Mohamed Massaquoi-Josh Cribbs trio at wide out doesn't look nearly as troubling.

"In our opinion, it's not a great linebacker draft," Browns general manager Tom Heckert said before last month's draft. "That's not saying we aren't going to get one. It's just not (a great class). I don't know how else to say it. Hopefully we can get some young guys in here and see what they do."

Well, the Browns did draft two linebackers, but not until later rounds.

Johnson, who was selected with the 25th pick of the fourth round, comes to the Browns with a similar background as Jackson. Johnson (6-1, 241) played inside and outside linebacker at Nevada, where he proved himself a productive tackler. While he can tackle, his lack of speed may prevent him from adequately covering tight ends in the NFL. Johnson has a chance to compete with Kaluka Maiava for a key back up or starting position. Maiava has simply underwhelmed since being drafted by the Browns in the fourth round in 2009.

Acho was taken with the 34th pick of the sixth round and he features a similar body type to Johnson — 6-1, 238. Like Johnson, Acho is a sure tackler and, like Johnson, Acho does not have good speed.

Did you catch the common theme between Acho and Johnson? Both are sure tacklers. In addition, the Browns bolster their defensive line in free agency with Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker and the draft by taking players with similar skill sets in defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn, who now need to step up with the loss of Phil Taylor.

The Browns have not stopped the run since 1999 and, quietly, the Browns are taking steps to improve that deficiency. Run the ball, stop the run. It's a pretty simple philosophy that has won a lot of professional football games.

For now, there is not much the Browns can do to drastically improve their linebacking corps. The Browns could be OK if Johnson and Acho adapt quickly to the professional game; If Fujita and Jackson stay healthy and if the improved defensive line could mask issues with the linebackers.

That's a lot of ifs.

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